Kindle Vella — First Impressions
Kindle’s new service, Vella, aims to capture the mobile market with serialised stories, but is it sustainable, and does Amazon actually care?
A few days ago, Amazon debuted its new service, Kindle Vella. A program by which users post 500–6000 word stories in “episodes.” It’s heralded in the community as a way to capitalise on serialised stories and short fiction in real time, rather than as complete releases. On the face of things, it appears a multi-faceted attempt to break into the mobile market and into Apple’s share of self-publishing (the app is currently only available on IOS). Building upon a market made popular by Wattpad and Radish, this new serialised service is being flouted as a great way to appeal to younger readers.
Indeed, one Facebook user stated the service could “capture the younger audience who tends to prefer micropayment for content.” This isn’t entirely untrue. The gaming industry has been using microtransactions for some time. Gamifying transactions has changed the economy of the video game industry. But it has also proved controversial, even damaging for a number of companies that have sought to exploit the system.
Excited as authors may be, young people in 2021 represent a highly-informed marketplace. Indeed, with a wealth of resources at hand, and increasing attempts to make the marketplace safer for children, young people are often much savvier than those who view this new platform as a great way to exploit them as an audience.
Still, the prospect of profiting from unfinished stories has caused a stir in the self-publishing community. While many have got lost in fantasies of greater profits — and fewer costs — others have been warier. They’ve noted that early “episodes” of stories are free, with subsequent episodes purchased with proprietary tokens. This somewhat dampens the potential for short stories to prove profitable. While the current price of tokens means that Vella collections may cost more than an actual book of the same length.
Wattpad developed a strong reader-base through free offerings before it moved into a microtransaction system. It still offers free stories. Amazon, however, has moved straight into a predominantly paid model. Trusting, instead, that the large audience for KDP products will support Vella. Which somewhat contradicts the excitement for Vella’s supposed appeal to a new, younger audience.
So what? It’s a new thing. At least Amazon is experimenting. Well, they’re not. Publishing has a rich history of serialisation. Examples of serialised works include The War of the Worlds, A Tale of Two Cities, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. If you notice a theme, you’ll recognise that these books are all regarded as classics. Serialisation fell out of favour in the 1980s. Sites like Wattpad and Radish have kept the concept alive in fringe publishing. But there’s been little room for serialisation to flourish in the digital age.
Inconsistency of character, over-long wordcounts, and reptitive motifs are common in serialised works when viewed as a whole. And while those issues are also common in the unregulated world of self-publishing, it doesn’t mean that Vella is about to revolutionise the market. Authors like Andy Weir and Dmitry Glukhovsky found success with serialised stories. But it remains the case that most authors struggle to make a living, whether traditionally or independently published. The myth of self-publishing being more lucrative for authors remains just that — a myth. It’s unlikely that Vella will change that.
Authors on social media suggest it could, “put additional pressure on traditional publishing to adapt to this new model of publishing.” Though this too feels unlikely. Such an outdated mode of publishing probably isn’t of interest to the stable model of traditional publishing. Publishers reported a major increase in digital sales in the last decade. While this has had a knock-on effect on print sales — though physical sales have been holding at around 200 million copies a year since 2013 — the publishing industry as a whole is not suffering from the emergence of self-publishing as a major financial player. Rather, it is independent booksellers who suffer under the yoke of platforms that independent authors exalt. If Vella affects anyone negatively, it’s likely to be them.
Besides, this model has existed in a digital space since at least 2006. If it were a mode of publishing that appeared poised to explode, it likely would have done so by now.
Authors are currently clamouring to thrust their work onto Vella. Or rather, authors in the US — the service haven’t received an international release yet. However, there are precedents that signal this may well be a short-lived venture. Serialisation is very much a product of print-media. With independent authors, and their commitment to KDP, so keen to subvert that it’s unlikely it can survive in general digital space. If that’s not enough, one can look at Amazon’s own previous attempt to capitalise on this model, Kindle Worlds.
Perhaps more pertinent is the long — and, in the author’s opinion, arduous — fascination with episodic releases in the gaming industry. The practice was most prominent at the now-defunct Telltale Games. But the practice of selling unfinished games was popular with major and indie developers alike. But as Imran Khan states when dissecting their demise for Vice:
The novelty has worn off, as the idea of getting a monthly game digitally delivered to your metaphorical doorstep isn’t really that interesting. Every console and PC storefront offers players a near-endless selection of titles that are perceived to be more complete, so it’s harder to see the appeal in episodic games.
The same is true for publishing. Serialisation is viable, to a point, when accompanied by scarcity. In the modern, digital, marketplace it has little going for it. Pre-digital, the idea of picking up a magazine and reading a chapter of a story may have been an interesting prospect. So, too, is having a place where fan-fiction writers — who are rarely represented in publishing — can gather and share their work. But with self-publishing, and Amazon’s own KDP in particular, offering an abundance of complete titles it’s hard to see how Vella can compete.
And compete it must. It’s not a novel concept, nor a novel platform. Prolific though self-publishing authors may be, they may struggle to keep the kind of schedule needed to remain relevant on Vella. With Wattpad and Radish just about sustaining the serial model and KDP offering complete works at a potentially lower overall price, it’s hard to see how Vella is going to improve the publishing marketplace or the income of authors.
Which is the real point here. Independent authors tend to celebrate Amazon and ignore its issues. All because they perceive that Amazon makes them money. It exerts no real regulation over the quality of work on its KDP platform and does not care how that work reflects on authors, so it’s viewed as non-gatekeeping. In Vella, authors have perceived an end to the one gatekeeping element self-publishing did have: completing a work.
Though you may ignore the ethical cost of Amazon and you may not care about the quality of its user experience, it’s important to remember that Amazon has not become a trillion-dollar company by caring about its employees or users. Authors may view Vella as an opportunity and an improvement to the industry, but they need to recognise that they’re not Amazon’s priority.
Cover image source: Amazon KDP